Hold Me Back

In 13 Ways of Looking At the Novel Jane Smiley writes about how novelists tend toward either broad or deep when it comes to scope. She notes comic novels tend to be broad in scope, and novels with a broad scope tend to rely on pattern and breadth.

“Some readers are happy to give up depth for pattern or breadth, for the sparkle of the author’s vision, wit and intelligence . . . . [B]road necessarily makes a pattern and so is intellectual and abstract,” she writes.

By deep she means psychological depth: “The prime example of deep is, of course, Madame Bovary. At the time of its publication, no previous author had ever gone so deeply into the psychology of a single character, especially a female character with all sorts of female weaknesses.”

Of course no novel fits perfectly in either category, and some novelists, according to Smiley have tried, particularly in the 19th century: “Novelists of the 19th century tried over and over to get both broad and deep.”

At its surface Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence seems broad in scope, as she covers a whole social realm: aristocratic New York in the late 19th century.

Wharton’s fiction seems a bridge between19th century social realism and 20th century modernism, because just underneath her social portraits is a teeming psychological depth held in check not by Wharton, but by her characters themselves and their emotional restraint.

Main character and narrator Newland Archer reveals this restraint late in the novel in a scene where he is sending a telegram.

Lefferts, who was known to shrink from discussion, raised his eyebrows with an ironic grimace that warned the other [Archer] of the watching damsel behind the lattice. Nothing could be worse “form,” the look reminded Archer, than a display of temper in a public place.

Such restraint fills the novel and induces Archer toward looking for something less restrained in the form of Ellen Olenska, an American (and New Yorker) who has been scandalized by her European count husband, and has returned to America after years in Europe. Madame Olenska, in turn, scandalizes old New York by her maintenance of an aristocratic European lifestyle.

In the end Archer only flirts with Olenska, and restraint leaves him with a what-could-have-been scenario that he never lets go through marriage to May Welland, through children, and into old age. Even after May dies, and Archer gets presented with the opportunity to perhaps change the what-might-have-been, he restrains himself.

He watches from a park bench as his son goes up to Madame Olenska’s apartment. The novel ends with him and his memory of a past, and his assumption that memory is better than the possibility of fulfilling his yearning, and perhaps, it seems, coming to regret it.

And restraint seems uncommon in the 19th century novels I’ve read so far: Whereas Tolstoy’s aristocrats or Flaubert’s bourgeois get swept up in their self-created dramas, Wharton’s characters seem to bury the drama under surface details, and even this element seems a bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries, and is reminiscent of Hemingway’s iceberg theory before Hemingway had posited that theory. (Hemingway was just beginning to publish when Wharton won the Pulitzer in 1921.)

But Wharton’s dwelling on surface details doesn’t diminish the depth at which she explores character. She is particularly acute to American psychology. Restraint and emotional reserve tend to be characteristics not only in American fiction, but also in American life itself.


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